The Windrush Generation

Exploring the period of 1948-1962 and the development of the Caribbean communities in London

By Black Cultural Archives

Your Neighbour from the West Indies (1955) by British Council of ChurchesBlack Cultural Archives

The Mother Country

Following the arrival of the ships the Ormonde and the Almanzora in 1947, the Empire Windrush docked on the River Thames in Tilbury on the 21st June 1948. Many on board the Empire Windrush were returning to Britain, having served in World War Two (1939-1945), to fight for the ‘Mother Country.’ Drawing on Britain’s vast overseas empire, over 350,000 men from Africa were recruited by the end of the World War Two, 17,500 men and women had joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) from across the British Empire including its colonies in the Caribbean. 

The 1027 men and women travelling on the Empire Windrush were returning to a country that had been devastated by war and in need of labour to help rebuild the country. In the Caribbean decades of underdevelopment and limited job opportunities drove many to seek better prospects.

Clapham deep-level shelter (2015) by Black Cultural ArchivesBlack Cultural Archives

234 of the passengers of the Empire Windrush were accommodated in the deep air-raid shelters underneath Clapham Common, close to Brixton. The use of Clapham deep shelter as temporary accommodation was the suggestion of Baron Baker, Jamaican RAF serviceman.

Many of those housed at Clapham came to the Labour Exchange in Brixton to find work and led to the early post-war settlement and development of the Black community in Brixton.

Photographs of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen AssociationBlack Cultural Archives

Members of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen's Association. These men and women served during the Second World War and came to Britain to seek a better life.

Coloured people in Britain (1952) by Ed J Burrow and Co LtdBlack Cultural Archives

Following the arrival and settlement of the ‘Windrush generation’ the research into ‘race relations’ began to flourish. Reports and research from the 1940s and the 1950s show the growing interest in the conditions facing Black communities across Britain. However, many of the reports reflect the racist attitudes towards new communities.

This map from the 1950s shows the different ethnic groups based in Stepney, with a street-by-street breakdown of settlement.

Colonial Stowaways who Arrived in the United Kingdom During 1950 (1950)Black Cultural Archives

In addition to paid travellers, a number of stowaways also made their way to Britain. Stowaways were British citizens however they could be arrested and imprisoned travelling without paying the fare. On the Empire Windrush there were two stowaways, including Evelyn Wauchope who avoided prosecution when her fellow passengers paid her fare.

Although we often think of the ‘Windrush’ period as reflecting Caribbean migration, this list shows a number of people who entered Britain from across the Empire including its West African colonies including Nigeria and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

Union Movement Policy (Undated)Black Cultural Archives

"Keep Britain White"

The promise of better prospects attracted people from across the British Empire, the early settlement of these pioneering men and women was marked by deeply embedded racism. For many the realities of life in Britain started as soon as they stepped onto land. The “colour bar” meant that many found it difficult to find accommodation, and if they did it was often overpriced and sub-standard. This “colour bar” extended into all aspects of life and denied many access to the services and support given to the white people who were also of British citizenship. Alongside the racism and discrimination practiced in housing and employment, overt and sometimes violent racism was also growing. This reached its peak in 1958 when Black communities were attacked in London and in Nottingham, leading to the murder of Antiguan-born Kelso Cochrane in 1959. The Union Movement was created by Oswald Mosley (1896-1980) as a far-right political party in 1948. This pamphlet outlines the Party’s racist ten-point plan. It was the activity of the Union Party in the Notting Hill area of London, and in Nottingham that led to the attacks on the Black communities culminating in the 1958 “race riots”

 

These attacks led to greater calls for restrictions to be placed on migration, with Black communities identified as “the problem” rather than the racism itself. These calls were taken up by the Government and culminated in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962.

Claudia Jones by Claudia Jones Memorial CommitteeBlack Cultural Archives

Despite the rising tide of racism, communities began to form across the United Kingdom and organised to defend themselves. Following the 1958 attacks, Amy Ashwood Garvey, co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and Claudia Jones, a prominent Trinidadian activist and founder of the newspaper the West Indian Gazette, met with community members to find ways of addressing the situation.

One of the key outcomes was the Caribbean Carnival at St. Pancras Town Hall in January 1959 which celebrated Caribbean culture.

West Indian Gazette/Paul Robeson Anniversary Concert (September 1960)Black Cultural Archives

This is a reproduction poster of a concert by African American singer and activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976). Robeson and his wife, Eslanda (1895-1965) were involved in political campaigning in Britain and were friends with Claudia Jones, founder of the West Indian Gazette.

Margaret Thatcher's Election Campaign Margaret Thatcher's Election Campaign (1979)Original Source: LSE Library

'Hostile Environment'

Following the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, a number of subsequent Acts were put into place including the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 and 1971, which gradually put greater restrictions on who could be granted British citizenship. The ‘problem’ of migration was most famously the target of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968 and was picked up as a genuine cause for concern among politicians. This was echoed by Margaret Thatcher, who would become Prime Minister, who said in 1978 that the “British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in”. Politicians like Powell and Thatcher argued that migration would negatively impact on what they considered to be British culture and the British way of life. 

Ephemera of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African DescentBlack Cultural Archives

As migration controls become tighter the ‘problem’ appears to become worse, but the underlying issues of racism, poor housing and education remain unaddressed.

However, despite the scandalization of the Windrush story, children of the Windrush generation continue to recognize, celebrate and commemorate the impact of Black communities on Britain. They continue to fight to highlight these injustices and provide support and inspiration for future generations.

Visit Black Cultural Archives

Find out more about Windrush by visiting BCA in Brixton, London.

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